GameDev Protips: How To Design A Truly Compelling Roguelike Game

I’ve designed and developed quite a few roguelike-inspired games over the past few years and have learned quite a lot during the whole process, most notably SanctuaryRPG and Overture — and so I thought I’d write this article about design principles that I chose during development, and my thought process behind my decisions.

So, roguelikes are often marked by their permadeath, meaning that failure results in starting over completely, a mild degree of randomness, and an intense focus on player skill. The combination of these factors makes each session unique due to varied player skill and varied levels themselves. In general terms, roguelikes’ gameplay is about minimizing mistakes and playing with the hand you’re given. These features don’t describe the actual mechanics of a game however. You might have a turn-based strategy game (You could loosely define X-Com as a roguelike if you play on ironman mode), a top down shooter (notably the Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon), a platformer (Spelunky), or something else entirely (Crypt of the NecroDancer is extremely unique among roguelikes for its rhythm-based gameplay).

Now that you know what makes up the roguelike, how do you go about making one? Obviously the first step is choosing what type of game you want to make, but after that, what are some rules to follow to make your game fit the roguelike mold? Firstly, the quality of a run should not feel random. Just because you have randomness in your game doesn’t mean you should make player skill a secondary factor. The player’s mistakes should always have a more significant impact than their luck, or if that isn’t possible or is hard to eliminate, luck should lean towards the good side as bad luck makes for a bad experience in most circumstances.

Similarly, an experienced player should be able to any level without taking damage or making mistakes in general. Obviously this should be difficult to achieve but if any level can be beaten by a player who plays perfect that means luck has been minimized as a factor and the player can’t blame the game for their failure. This can lead to a motivation to improve since it is obvious that the only weak link is their skill. This also is a factor in why roguelikes often have small health numbers, as the number feels much more controlled rather than just being one of the hundreds they’re bound to lose.

Players should be capable of starting a new run quickly. Part of the reason many roguelikes are successful is because you can near-instantly restart after failure. Menus getting in the way can antagonize an already frustrated player if they failed and annoy one that didn’t, potentially ending the session. This contributes to the “one more game” mentality that is a strong factor in making the game addictive.

Lastly, and most importantly, the player should not feel like their sessions are futile. The player needs to feel as if they’re making some kind of progress in order to incite playing the game for longer. The most common way to fix this is having unlockables that are unlocked when certain conditions are met, giving the player something the strive for. The system doesn’t have to be that complex though. It could be as simple as having a well-tuned difficulty curve that ensures the player can have a tangible feeling of skill improvement as they get further into the game each time they try. A roguelike with no purpose will not be played. You can see this in many Youtubers as they near the end of a game’s lifespan — they’ll try out weird challenge runs that they impose upon themselves in order to bring back that sense of skill progression as they succeed in the most unlikely of handicapped scenarios.

Important Takeaways: The roguelike is an extremely prominent genre today, so it always helps to know how to create your own. Roguelikes are known to have permadeath, have some degree of randomness, and heavily reward player skill. In general, roguelikes are all about dealing players their hand and having them minimize their mistakes while playing with that hand. In the process of making a roguelike, there are a few priority rules to follow.

The quality of a run should be based off the player’s skill more so than luck. Next, levels should always be beatable without damage (or imperfection in general) assuming the player plays perfectly in order to ensure that luck is a non factor in success. For making the game more appealing as a whole, runs should be easily restarted after failure or success in order to promote the “one more game” mentality, and there should be some tangible form of progression be it through unlockables or seeing gradual increases in the distance a player gets before finally losing over a series of runs.